LibriVox recording of The Dancing Mania by Justus Hecker.
Read by Martin Geeson
Numerous theories have been proposed for the causes of dancing mania, and it remains unclear whether it was a real illness or a social phenomenon.
One of the most prominent theories is that victims suffered from ergot poisoning, which was known as St Anthony's Fire in the Middle Ages. During floods and damp periods, ergots were able to grow and affect rye and other crops. Ergotism can cause hallucinations, but cannot account for the other strange behaviour most commonly identified with dancing mania.
Many sources discuss how dancing mania, and tarantism, may have simply been the result of stress and tension caused by natural disasters around the time, such as plagues and floods…people may have danced to relieve themselves of the stress and poverty of the day, and in doing so, attempted to become ecstatic and see visions. Sources agree that dancing mania was one of the earliest forms of mass hysteria, and describe it as a "psychic epidemic", with numerous explanations that might account for the behaviour of the dancers.
Another popular theory is that the outbreaks were all staged, and the appearance of strange behaviour was down to its unfamiliarity. Religious cults may have been acting out well-organised dances, in accordance with ancient Greek and Roman rituals. Despite being banned at the time, these rituals could be performed under the guise of uncontrollable dancing mania.
Justus Hecker, a 19th-century medical writer, described it as a kind of festival, where a practice known as "the kindling of the Nodfyr" was carried out. This involved jumping through fire and smoke, in an attempt to ward off disease.
It is certain that many participants of dancing mania were psychologically disturbed, but it is also likely that some took part out of fear, or simply wished to copy everyone else.
Although dancing mania was something confined to its period, some have identified modern-day activities that display some of its characteristics. It has been suggested that raving, an activity which became popular in the latter half of the 20th century, features characteristics of dancing mania. For example, raves may involve activities that onlookers consider odd (such as partying all night), the use of drugs to bring on hallucinations, and participants who are part of a subculture. (Introduction from Wikipedia, slightly adapted.)
For further information, including links to online text, reader information, RSS feeds, CD cover or other formats (if available), please go to the LibriVox catalog page for this recording.
For more free audio books or to become a volunteer reader, visit LibriVox.org.
Reviewer:Timothy Ferguson -
October 25, 2012 Subject:
A suprisingly modern book
This is a 19th Century attempt to discern if the dancing manias seen through history were a physical illness, or a sort of contagious madness. Hecker’s view turns out to be surprisingly modern. He’s one of the first people I’ve seen who suggests that environmental factors can make people susceptible to mirroring the unusual behaviours of others. In societies which are not economically or culturally diverse, the similarity in the lives people lead can make them susceptible to manias which relive social pressures. The reading is by Martin Geeson, a Welsh (I believe) reader, who does an excellent job. I know from some of the interviews I’ve seen with him that he agonizes over the quality of his work, and his attention to the finished form really shows through here.